Halo / A Level Playing Field (Part Two)

From it’s revolutionary gameplay (whose echoes are still being felt in the modern FPS) to its cinematic score, from “tank beats everything” to “wort wort wort”, the Halo franchise is, simply put, a cornerstone of the video game medium. This is the series that saved the Xbox, creating the three horse console race that persists to this day. This is the series whose synonymy with gaming is perhaps only rivalled by Nintendo’s first party offerings. This is the series that I grew up on, split-screen with my brothers.

As Halo approached its sweet sixteen, my brother Alex suggested we take off the nostalgia goggles for a second and critique every level of every main entry to the franchise, in release order, Combat Evolved to Guardians. Alongside our eldest brother John, we have ranked and reviewed each mission for your reading pleasure. Awarding marks for quality of gameplay (fun), execution of atmosphere (style), as well as narrative coherence (substance), we each assigned a personal mark out of 10 to every level, which we then compiled into a final shared score out of 30. Note that Halo 3:ODST has been omitted from the running on the grounds that it is a standalone expansion for Halo 3 and not a main series entry. This is part two of two.

Editor-in-Chief's Note: ODST and New Mombasa is a strange beast in the Halo canon, but ultimately had some of the best storytelling and gameplay of the series in this humble writer's opinion that rivaled the high points of both Reach and Halo 3. ODST is sidestory to that of main series but it was an avenue I was glad to go down. It is my unofficial addition to this top 40.

A Level Playing Field (Part One)

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 19 / 30

Alex: An unforgivably bland and frustrating mission that serves no real purpose other than to artificially bloat the mission count. It's a shame because the cutscene prior to the mission depicting the changing of the guard from Elites to Brutes is excellent storytelling and really helps the player understand that there may be cracks in the Covenant's seemingly invincible façade. Sounds interesting, right? You'd like to explore this more, yes? Too bad! You're about to get a Master Class in letting players down.

Gaze upon the recipe for a bad Halo level:

  • Mission title that doesn't really describe the level
  • Prolonged elevator or gondola Flood sequence
  • Flood as main antagonist
  • Trap doors and switches that don't consistently work
  • Not even a hint as to where you should be heading
  • Boring fights that you will want to and can skip

"Sacred Icon" has all of these ingredients in spades. Seriously, the entire level is just the Arbiter making his way through Flood infested elevators, hallways and chutes to get another McGuffin... but then not getting the McGuffin.

The best part about "Sacred Icon" is the conclusion of the mission – partly because you defend a snow capped hill with Elites from the Flood but mostly because it's finally over.

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20 / 30

Alex: I approached "Quarantine Zone" with much trepidation. "Wait," I said. "Another Flood and Sentinel level for the Arbiter? Are they trying to make us hate him?" Thankfully, my fears were met with a fun, unique mission that is better than it really has any right to be. Quarantine Zone eschews the negative aspects of fighting the Flood or Sentinels (tight spaces, boring fights, one-hit kills that are frustrating more than anything) by turning the conflict into a three-way fight for control of the ring world. Adding that extra variable of enemy AI on enemy AI combat has always benefitted the Halo formula and this is no exception. Battling through snow-capped hills, glowing caves, and shells

of derelict spacecrafts as Wraith and Enforcer mortars light up the sky is engrossing and made all the better by taking place predominantly behind the wheel of a Scorpion or basically any other vehicle you want.

It's a shame then that the level concludes with yet another gondola fight sequence. Cause, ya know, we needed another one of those to stretch this level out.

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20.5 / 30

Alex: Action-packed opening cinematic? Check. Well paced introduction to our new abilities. Check. Witty banter between our new squad mates? Check (doubly so for Buck). "Osiris", the opening level of Halo 5: Guardians is a promising jaunt through snowy foothills and rocky Forerunner installations to rescue Dr. Halsey from Jul'Mdama – if only you got to actually fight him, a trend of anticlimax that will continue throughout Halo 5.

Gone is the solitude of Halo 4's early missions. Here to stay (literally in every mission) are your three squad mates – a change from previous entries that I'm still not sure benefits the gameplay in the way 343 had hoped. You see, Osiris and Blue Team AI is really, really dumb. Whether it's shooting you in the back, not shooting anything, running directly into enemy fire, or failing to revive you, they find a way to detract from the fun you could be having. You're even given a set of command options to herd these Spartan cats but in most cases the time it takes to properly give a command would be better used advancing your position or landing some headshots.

   

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20.5 / 30 

Heather: It's been a rocky road, but Halo 4 at least ends with a, dare I say, epic bang.

Literally. There's a nuke and everything.

Puns aside, out-manoeuvring the final battalion of knights is both challenging and tactically interesting, a winning combination when it comes to convincing the player of the high stakes. The lengthy Broadsword flight segment that precedes it, however, veers closer to the annoyingly difficult and strangely long. It's certainly something different, and I'll take anything to shake up the menial labour that is the bulk of 4, but when you've already tasted the worthy space flight simulation of "Last Night of Solace", it kind of comes across as an unpolished Rogue Squadron bootleg.

What really gives "Midnight" a leg up is the heartfelt voice acting and bespoke animation of Cortana's farewell. 343 clearly only had so many Good Writing Points™ to spare, and I'm glad they spent them here. The dialogue is powerful, Steve Downes' and Jen Taylor's performances even more so.

In the end, we still need to judge these levels by whether or not they're actually fun though, and "Midnight" is above par...for Halo 4. The QTE boss fight also feels more than a little cheesy while robbing you of an actual epic boss fight-

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21 / 30

Heather: "Regret" mostly sticks out for its unique setting: an eerie aquatic complex complete with bathyspheres and leisurely snipe-filled gondola rides. Navigating "Regret"'s labyrinth of ruined rooms and hidden causeways is surprisingly fun when there's a fight around every corner, and the length of the build up is certainly appropriate given the importance of your target.

The boss fight itself is a fun change of pace (especially with the scores of elite honour guards) but the aforementioned gondola trick is a little tired the second time around, and the level design isn't particularly exciting once you get past the underwater appeal.

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21 / 30 

Heather: It says a lot that even though "Infinity" is the best (read: "least not good") level in Halo 4, its most remarkable feature is a lush jungle segment that breaks up Requiem's otherwise shiny grey monotony. Perhaps it only seems so good in the moment because its verdant hues and (oddly quiet) marines harken back to the salad days of "The Silent Cartographer" and "Delta Halo". The most glaring narrative problems of 4, be they the uncharacteristically irreverent and irrational UNSC or the... Genesong, have yet to rear their ugly heads; the Promethean combat, not yet stale.

The Mantis is also introduced, because 343 knows that Metal Gear is a videogame that people like and I guess they thought that the presence of a mech armed to the teeth with missiles was the reason why.

And while they're certainly not wrong – not exactly – even the Mantis can't hope to carry the dead weight of what comes next.

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21 / 30

John: This simplistic level gets bonus points for being a great first mission. For starters, this one of the first (and best) times I'd seen tutorial integrated so smoothly into the action and narrative of a shooter. But more importantly, there is a lot going on under the many-textured surfaces of the Halo universe, and it’s easy to forget six main entries later that Combat Evolved just jumps right in. Literally. The Pillar of Autumn (and even that dope ship name tells you this is an uncommon name) appears in alien space around a "ring world" via a “blind jump”, and it’s your best guess what that term even means in this game world. Where did you jump from? Who are the Covenant? Who the hell are humans in this universe? Shut up and grab this pistol: you'll pick up the rest as you go. All of this introduces you to Halo’s lore delivery system, which I affectionately call storytelling by osmosis. To its credit, there are virtually NO info dumps in this game, not even in the introduction. Now, this same feature also contributes to one of the game’s weak points – a frequent lack of clarity regarding the player’s objective and a lot of, "Wait, why are we here again?" moments – but I’ll gladly take that tradeoff in a game whose environments and NPCs are so detail-laden, and whose action is so consistently fun and even exhilarating. Besides, all you need to know is that you're the Chief and you're awesome.

Now let’s be honest, "TPoA" was never gonna top this list. Still, all these years later, I gotta say it's fun. Popping Grunt skulls with that sweet, sweet pistol of yore never got old. But also, you will rarely again engage so many Grunts and Elites (for my money the tastiest bread and butter of Halo combat) in such intimate corridors, with so many grenades flying and setting off secondary

explosions. And before Halo dropped, we just hadn’t seen grenade physics so wild and AI responses to live grenades so intuitive, rapid and frankly hilarious. Combined with how short this level is, the resulting experience is quick and dirty in the best way.

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21.5 / 30 

Alex: "Tip of the Spear" is an excellent example of a solid campaign elevating an otherwise middling mission out of mediocrity. It's the back-up goalie on a Stanley Cup winning hockey team. It's the glue-guy at the office who manages to never get fired despite no one really knowing what he does but "Man, great guy!" In any other campaign, "Tip of the Spear" would get trashed but it is the beneficiary of the Reach bump.

On the positive side, it's generally fun to play and features an awesome initial assault on an entrenched covenant position. You also start with the Grenade Launcher – a severely underrated weapon in the Halo armoury - which is a joy to use. The vehicle section, in which you take down Anti-Air batteries with a Rocket Warthog (it sounds way more fun than it is) is a real slog that manages to take the joy right out of driving a Warthog.

Our "worst" Halo: Reach mission still makes the top 30.

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21.5 / 30

Heather: As Halo 3's first full mission "Sierra 117" naturally has plenty of firsts to bring to the table. Brute spikers, destructible Brute armour, Brute chieftains....okay maybe "Sierra 117" just has plenty of Brutes to bring to the table. But that's far from a bad thing, especially when you throw in all the other new features like deployable "gear", two whole new flavours of grenade, and the absolutely wonderful gravity hammer.

The generational jump is immediately apparent in the level's open arenas and vast environments, especially the final dam siege, though perhaps a little too much choreography is lost for the sake of expansiveness.

 
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21.5 / 30

"Nightfall" is like the good part of Truth and Reconciliation, only longer, and with permanent night vision. Unlike the irrelevant, direct-to-VHS, could-take-place-in-any-sci-fi-universe-but-unfortunately-the-license-says-"Halo" miniseries of the same name that introduced fans to everybody's favourite new Spartan Locke (cue heavy electric guitar riff that overtly sucks), "Nightfall" is worth your time and mostly pleasant. As a stealth-based mission, it also lets you make full use of the flashy new assassination mechanic, which is a good time all around. Jun's banter with the local militia sheds light on the relationship between Spartan and civilians, and in general he's a pretty fun guy to hang out with, as far as recon operations can be considered hangouts. "What, you don't like my cooking?"

Oh, and you're spoiled for choice when it comes time for that sweet sweet sniping, from classic sniper and beam to the Reach-exclusive needle rifle.

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21.5 / 30

John: This is one of those levels that I feel very much improves on higher difficulties. As it was, we played every level on Normal, and Dr. Halsey's urgent exhortations to buy more time for the fate of the human race ring a little hollow if the Covenant don't really press you against the wall on this one, which they totally didn't for us. But if they do, I think it's a really fun level! You can pick any weapons you want and fight alongside your boys in this huge subterranean ice cavern like it's four-player co-op. Also it's one of those missions where you can jack a Banshee and that's just swell. Plus securing Cortana not only ties this campaign to the original series but indeed renders your mission vital to everything that is to come.

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22 / 30

Heather: "Metropolis" has some stellar moments: wrecking Ghosts with your Scorpion on the opening bridge crawl, a rare taste of the Gauss 'Hog, and of course, boarding the first Scarab. All against the backdrop of a rather atmospheric sunset, I might add. Halo 2 sort of has a thing for those.

Otherwise however, his mission is merely competent, and the scarab goes down somewhat anti-climatically easily after all the to-do about climbing aboard.

That late original Xbox era sunset rendering though. Damn. I'll give it an extra .5 just for that.

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22 / 30

John: I still don't know why this level is called The Mouth, but it sure sounds cool. "The Maw" starts with solid combat but nothing to write home about. Then there's a frankly annoying jumping section to blow up the Autumn's reactor or something. But that's not what people remember, is it? Hot damn, that final Warthog run... those legendary strings as the ring world collapses all around you... an unforgettable ride that gave us chills back in the day. We have yet to see its like. However. It's not the only part of this otherwise atmospheric but middling level.

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22.5 / 30

John: Just because Two Betrayals is a backwards and imperfect "Assault on the Control Room", doesn't mean it's not a great level! Although players are still divided or just plain baffled as to what the second betrayal was, Guilty Spark's non-chalant assumption that we were aware and totally down for his plan to murder us along with the Flood is an unforgettable reveal. Plus, this campaign now has three enemy factions and the entire series will benefit from this constantly evolving complexity of combatants! Get it? Because of the first game's subtitle? Yeah, not everyone remembers one of the most ground-breaking shooters ever had a mostly nonsensical subtitle. BUT I DO.

ALSO: Helpful nav points! So many Covies (yay!) after so much Flood. Engrossing large-scale AI vs. AI conflict make recycled assets feel fresh again. Sweet tracks. Flood drop from the ceiling.

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23 / 30

John: Meet Noble team. Carter is professional, capable and in charge without being cold, unapproachable or aloof. He's stoic and by the book but he also clearly lives by a soldier's abiding sense of camaraderie – he just doesn't need to make big speeches about it. Later he'll surprise you by greeting you after a singularly trying mission with a firm but gentle brotherly hand on your shoulder rather than a formal salute. He will back his team and defend their lives at any price and they know that implicitly. He will risk their lives whenever necessary for the mission's success and they don't mind that one bit. Of course, Spartans never die... except for the one you're here to replace. Look, Spartans rarely die, and never on Carter's watch – your predecessor was Kat's goof, the same one that cost her the arm. Kat is smart and bold and frequently find herself in possession of military intelligence above security clearance and resources above her pay-grade. She has a robot arm. Jun is funny and also cool, with sweet tats. Jorge is earnest, warm and sentimental. And large. Very large. Emile is scary and overtly menacing but in a chill, self-aware way that makes it fun? Between missions he spends his time looking surly and badass and getting bored waiting for the next opportunity to make things die fast and hard with a giant skeleton smile on his visor.

If you ever read The Fall of Reach and thought about what it might be like to be one of humanity's finest in a battle against extinction, then this might just be the dream. You are your own Spartan avatar on a (richly drawn, fantastically acted) team of Spartans (i.e. not whatever Osiris is). Welcome to Noble. And welcome to Reach, Noble Six.

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23 / 30

John: I am reliving one of the greatest moments in video gaming and it is so sweet. I just have one question: What am I driving on? What am I driving on in this, the finale to one of the most iconic and influential video game sagas of our time? Is it… large grey polygons? I think it’s large grey polygons, you guys. But I can forgive anything while this track is playing.

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23.5 / 30

Alex: "Delta Halo" is a delightful romp through sun-soaked ruins with all your main ODST pals. For lack of a better word, it's an extremely chill mission and a welcome one at that.

Design-wise, "Delta Halo" is an evolution of the ideas presented in Halo: CE's "Halo": an orbital drop, assaulting compound after compound with human allies (in this case ODSTs), defending against waves of Covenant shock troops, and allowing the player to approach each encounter from a variety of engagement distances. But where "Halo" was needlessly non-linear, "Delta Halo" prescribes the player's course to thrilling effect by ensuring each encounter and vehicle segment is approached from the right vector. The mission's highlight is easily the sniper fight against jackals in the canyon which gives way to a stunning vista filled with hanging Forerunner structures.

As my brother noted in his thoughts on "Outskirts": "In the best levels, the action is guided by a developing tactical situation rather than the series' at times overbearing if not outright opaque narrative and melodramatic but ultimately insubstantial dialogue." This is especially true of "Delta Halo".

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23.5 / 30

Alex: What's truly incredible is that "ONI: Sword Base" manages to be a middling Halo: Reach mission but still tie for 16th best Halo mission overall. It's a tight, fast-paced mission that consistently delivers fun gameplay. Much like "Long Night of Solace", "ONI: Sword Base" excels at making you feel like a super soldier. Covenant drop like flies as you methodically work your way through the courtyard – a rare instance of a Halo game nailing a long, drawn out firefight by consistently pushing the player forward. The vehicle combat sections are among the series' best. The ending cutscene does a lot to explain why exactly the Covenant have attacked Reach (a Forerunner artifact) and to flesh out Dr. Catherine Halsey's position not only as a coldly focused scientist (she couldn't care less about casualties when she chides Carter for not going after the Zealot Class Elites) but also as a mother to Spartan-IIs like Jorge.

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23.5 / 30

John: "Used to be the crown jewel... Not anymore." From a city in chaos ("Exodus") to a city in ashes. Plus it's raining. Pathetic fallacy that makes Kat's "I know we're losing. I want to know if we've lost," feel just about right. Carter gives you that pat on the back I promised, and it's time to move on. But not before Noble takes a minute to fondly mourn team teddy bear, Jorge, demonstrating poignantly and cathartically the abiding bonds that these characters have forged in and out of countless battles before your entrance into the game. Even Emile – maybe even Emile in particular – who previously had only taken jabs at Jorge, is clearly going to miss, and I daresay even loved "the Big Man".

Like every mission in this game, the combat and level design here range from completely solid to very strong so just keep assuming that and I'll continue to focus on the note-perfect storytelling that truly sets this game apart in the series and in our rankings.

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Reach is always drawing you in with what you see and hear in every succinct and on-point cutscene. Its moods ebb and flow (but mostly ebb) naturally and its atmosphere builds consistently from emerging crisis to existential threat to looming doom necessitating stoic survival tactics and heroism. So you are engrossed and it's hard to be stoic when at the conclusion of this mission an Jackal of all lowly things (EDIT: apparently it was actually "the Sangheili Field Marshall", but that's incredibly hard to make out) fires a sniper rifle from offscreen to put a shockingly sudden end to Kat right after she puts you at ease with small talk about surviving "first glassing". Not only is Kat eminently likeable, but in this universe she represents something that, thanks to the Master Chief, you can believe is near infinitely valuable: a legendary Spartan (albeit not a vaunted "Generation II", I know). On top of that, you get the sense by now that with her tactical creativity and espionage skills, she's actually Noble's secret weapon. Kat's like the Cortana of Reach. She's the one you can trust to find a way forward, which you will then shoot your way through. Losing her with plenty of miles to go therefore feels particularly disorienting as well as disheartening.

Finally, and I don't know how else to say it... Noble Two was the team's only girl (on our playthrough, but even if you played Six as a girl... let's just say Six doesn’t talk much). And somehow losing her especially sucks for that reason. It's less of a family now, more like... well, more like you might imagine some military units, or how they used to be. They're brothers-in-arms, yes, but something essential about humanity is missing, and to me the Spartans represent the best of all humanity and indeed the future of humanity, wherein presumably we all hope the cultural value of equal opportunity and representation will continue to flourish. The team briefly recovers their joie de vivre after Jorge. They don't get it back after Kat. The vibe is more, "Let's just get this done," from here on out.

In any case, that female presence – while irrelevant to anyone's legitimacy as a warrior – seems to be at play in the other characters' at least subconscious experience of the group's social dynamic: I can't see Carter cradling any of the others in his arms the way he does with Kat's body; they would definitely be over the shoulder fireman's carry, if that. Her little robot arm dangling limply in the final scene evokes the sense of a fragile life in the balance of the greater war, but it foils powerfully and (for me) painfully with the memory of the forceful character who masterminded the inspired strike on the Long Night of Solace and with unfailing charm just could not bring herself to respect her military's hierarchy over her own calculations about results in the field when lives were on the line. Which is probably why she was still only a lieutenant like sweet Six.

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24 / 30

Alex: The only Halo 5 mission to crack the top 30 is a good one and comes as a welcome surprise at the mid-point of a truly awful campaign. "Swords of Sanghelios" mysteriously sheds the narrative fat surrounding much of the campaign in favour of a straight-forward mission to find the Arbiter in the midst of a Covenant civil war (a conflict which is MUCH more interesting than anything else is in this game).

Our introduction to the Elite homeworld is well-executed save for some lazy dialogue where NPCs refer to our target correctly as "THE Arbiter" and then incorrectly as just "Arbiter". This may seem nit-picky but getting these details right in the FIFTH installment of the main franchise is tantamount to preserving the player experience that is expected.

The level is visually stunning: windswept ruins, vast sun-baked canyons and rock outcroppings serve as a stunning backdrop to battle the fanatical remnants of the Covenant. Battling your way through the canyons to the Arbiter is exhilarating. Smashing the Covenant with a Mantis even more so. This is the best showcase of Halo 5's significantly improved combat (over 4's) and realistically, the only mission worth replaying.

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24 / 30

Heather: Halo 2 makes no bones about being a strict upgrade over the original. From the first moments of "Cairo Station" it's abundantly clear that you can now fire twice as much gun as you may have grown accustomed to. The ability to dual-wield SMGs was front and centre in Halo 2 advertising for a reason, and nowhere else do you get to embrace this feature quite like in this mission.

You get to fight through all of the station's tactically taxing hull breach assaults and neat anti-gravity sections with both hands full of gun, gun you'll surely need for handling your first brush with Covenant Drones. A solid and fun intro-level that kicks things off right.

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24.5 / 30

Heather: Players have been conditioned, with few exceptions in the history of the virtual medium, to understand that victory is possible. Many games can be extremely challenging, but the possibility of victory is still assured nevertheless, given the player is sufficiently skilled. Other games may indeed feature the inevitable defeat of the protagonist, but relegate it to cutscenes, such that the player still proceeds under the belief that, provided they have control, they cannot truly lose. Particularly abundant in the FPS genre is this notion of the player as an effectively unstoppable avatar, mowing down hordes of enemies on the way to the next objective. As legendary as the struggle can be in Halo, no matter how many skulls you have slapped on, Chief can find a way forward.

In "Lone Wolf", there is no win condition. No end to the enemy masses. No escape for Noble Six. In a game about the futility and valiance of sacrifice (either in spite or because of said futility), "Lone Wolf", although brief and unconventional, does more to communicate this theme with only mechanics and the cracking glass of your visor than much of the previous nine levels. The title is also a poignant call back to Carter's words to you at the start of Reach:

"I'm glad to have your skill set, but we're a team. That lone wolf stuff stays behind. Clear?"

Ironic then, that the team's "lone wolf" does stay behind to die alone, quietly and without affectation, for the survival of humanity's last best hope.

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24.5 / 30

Heather: Imagine, if you will, that you've just been airdropped in first person in the middle of a beachhead assault. It's 2001. There are warthogs. Rocket launchers. Elites with golden armour and laser swords. Elite Elites. You've just barely managed to pick the pieces of your mind off the floor by the time you reach the mute mapmaker itself.

And then this starts playing.

More than a dozen years later the level itself is still pretty rad. Maybe not mind blowing. But that sweet, sweet electric guitar hasn't aged a day, and this is hands down one of best classic close quarter covenant fights of all time.

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25 / 30

John: Ok, this Spartan Laser is hawt tho. And you know what else? Mankind has finally developed its response to the Banshee. Don’t know what took them so long – it’s basically a helicopter – but UNSC R&D really came through on this sweet baby Pelican ride that you can bring your spicy friends on. You can (and should) try to ride on your friend’s Banshee but you will fall off and die humourously.

This level’s also got some dope canyons that let you rain down an array of anti-material weaponry (including more of that hawt, hawt Laser) on the heaviest varieties of Covenant hardware. Combine this with spooky tower fights with cloaked Brutes and a truly well-executed Drone ambush, and punctuate it with a few dethronements of Chieftains each chilling like Bowser’s kids in their castles – this mission is excellent. You also get to feel like one prong of a trident-like all-in op with your allies that culminates in a battle against TWO Scarabs at once. Then the Flood fight alongside you to stop Truth which is... surreal and funny when they talk but kinda cool, and the only time in the series you'll get to team up with the dreaded Parasite... who will go back to trying to eat you in like five minutes. But it was good while it lasted. Plus now the Sentinels are back fighting for you against the Flood again! And Sentinels never betray you. Except when... Oh my God.

THEY were the second betrayal.

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25.5 / 30

John: Oh hi there, friend. Say do you like... Halo? And do you also like... driving fast and/or shooty vehicles in Halo? Then please enjoy this "Tsavo Highway" with our compliments. What's a Brute Chopper? We're so glad you asked. Seriously though, Tsavo is just good twisted metal times from start to finish.

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25.5 / 30

John: This mission begins with the gorgeous backdrop of the scuttled Long Night of Solace strewn over a mountain range, proof of the enormity of Noble’s accomplishment and Jorge’s sacrifice. It continues with Six, having fallen from space with a new commission from the now fallen Five, limping back into the line of duty. It’s thus immediately evocative of two of the game’s most memorable themes simultaneously: the futility of even the most Herculean feats in the face of an overwhelmingly superior alien superpower, and the unwavering resolve to doggedly soldier on regardless. Far removed from the hard-pressed but inevitably victorious Cortana and Chief duo, you wonder what keeps these mere mortals going.

With the recent appearance of dozens more super-carriers where just one took the full extent of humanity’s might on Reach to destroy, it’s at this point that game switches gears (as heavily foreshadowed) from defending the planet to hanging on long enough to pass the torch to someone who can actually finish this fight. Noble is no longer whole, and never will be. The dream is over. It feels rough, or it did to me, but I'm the sort to forget that the game told me in the first cutscene that my character would die, and also that I read a book literally entitled The Fall of Reach, wherein a planet called Reach does indeed fall spectacularly.

So times are bleak. Perfect moment to reintroduce the series’ resident assholes–the Brutes, before they got all uppity–as they terrorize a city and make for some engaging urban combat with civilians actively at risk in game. “Exodus” continues to convey the human cost of the fall of Reach as you’re able to pay close attention to radio during the fun but undemanding gameplay of the Falcon ride. You hear desperate people calling for help, people answering, command structures beginning to disintegrate, soldiers ignoring orders in order to stay and help evacuate. You get a bird’s eye view of a lot of people running and dying. Against all odds, you might just be playing a Halo game that makes you feel something other than moderate body-horror and the manic glory of combat.

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26 / 30

Alex: Epic. Engrossing. Exhilarating. Pardon my alliteration but Halo vehicular combat doesn't get much more excellent than this. The calm before "The Storm" (I'll show myself out) is expertly paced featuring you and a squad of marines suiting up for the unknown. The marines' choice of weaponry and mount (Mongooses with Rocket-toting marines riding piggy back) seems woefully inadequate at first but proves to be the perfect, agile counter to the heavy artillery the Covenant brought to the party. The Scarab fight is well choreographed from introduction to bombastic takedown – a welcome upgrade from the anti-climactic battle in Halo 2's "Metropolis". The level drags a bit as you engage in skirmishes with Brutes on the way to taking down an anti-air battery, but not enough to detract significantly from a superb level.

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26 / 30

John: My favourite missions tend to follow Chief and the marines doing their thing on a clear day, one-liners flying as much as bullets. In the best levels, the action is guided by a developing tactical situation rather than the series' at times overbearing if not outright opaque narrative and melodramatic but ultimately insubstantial dialogue (at it's worst in a level like "Cortana"). ALL OF THAT just fades away into a sublime reverie of headshots, explosions and alien death throes. You don't need to know what this fight is about. You're the Master Chief; fighting is why you're here. You're going to finish the fight in front of you just because it's a fight, with marines on one side and assholes on the other. No added incentive or direction is required.

So guess how much I like Outskirts. Unlike most "defend your position" set-pieces in the series, the Covenant try a number of tactics with each sortie into your initial stronghold, and you have a variety of defensive options that make the first courtyard encounter dynamic and compelling. The ensuing streets and rooftops battle feels uniquely realistic and engrossing for the series, in a way that makes me wish Halo games spent more time on Earth (without the damn Flood, obviously). Finally, "Outskirts" proceeds to show off Halo 2's new and improved vehicular action at the beachhead and in the subterranean highway, resulting in arguably the most Warthog fun you'll have in the series (but hold your breath for more Scorpions and something called a "Rocket Mongoose").

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26.5 / 30

Heather: "The Pillar of Autumn" is one of those rare Halo levels that succeeds at engaging the player with both story and mechanical structure. There's an undeniable feeling of urgency as Noble Six and Emile rush to bring Cortana, humanity's last and best hope, to The Autumn. The mad rush by Mongoose between the legs of Scarabs perfectly illustrates the struggle of raw human determination and tenacity against the almighty power of the alien that defines Halo. As Carter and Emile each fall in turn, their sacrifices are testament to the nobility (despite an apparent futility) of that core struggle, and in the footsteps of Noble the player must push ever onward in securing the safety of Keyes and Cortana (and even, somewhere offscreen, the Master Chief).

The bittersweet fadeout of Noble Six, alone in the valley as they await the covenant glassing, into Keyes' post-jump, "Cortana, all I need to know is: did we lose them?" and some all-too familiar strings are as fitting an end as any. Halo is a circle, and Bungie ends where they begin.

John: Having just played through the entire series, I feel that the quintessential nobility of my favourite characters – Noble team – is that they all quietly embody and champion – without pomp or bluster but profoundly and to their core – the words that Chief matter-of-factly but sincerely recites to Lasky at the (actually good) final scene of Halo 4: "Our duty as soldiers is to protect humanity. Whatever the cost."

Lasky replies, "You say that like soldiers and humanity are two different things. Soldiers aren't machines. We're just people." But that's exactly what makes these characters so compelling and captivating, and indeed, through Chief and Cortana – who must finally lose one another and thereby illuminate in stark relief a connection and an obvious love that even I had underestimated in the original trilogy – it is by far the most redeeming aspect of Halo 4. Because they are soldiers, they secure victory for humanity whatever the cost. Because they are human, they pay that cost personally, and because it is personal, the cost is high, for character and player alike.

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27 / 30

Alex: "This is certain: the Brutes shall pay for the blood they have spilled." "Uprising" delivers on that promise in a big way. This level is nearly perfect and single-handedly redeems the Arbiter's side of the campaign.

Remember the changing of the guard we witnessed in "Sacred Icon"? Well, the Elites are pissed and out for vengeance. Their position in the Covenant, and thus their faith in the Great Journey shattered, the Sangheili are caught in the galactic conflict between Covenant, Human, Flood and Forerunner construct with only revenge against the lying Prophets and murderous Brutes in mind.

It's visually gorgeous, moves at a blistering space, and offers easily the best two or three firefights in Halo 2 (it helps that Brutes were still uniquely fun to fight and didn't just become Elites in an ape costume as in Halo 3). Encounters are deftly punctuated by racing Ghosts down canyons and rallying Grunts, Elites and Hunters to your cause.

Exploring the inter-Covenant conflict is a welcome addition to an otherwise straightforward campaign narrative. But bottom-line, the level is just exceptionally good fun.

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27 / 30

Heather: Poorly named? Certainly. Eponymous villain a frankly kind of silly plant with a poetic streak? Sure. But boring?

Sorry I can't hear your rhetorical question over the sound of me impaling a rampaging space gorilla on the business end of my Bruteshot (ok both ends are business ends) as I singlehandedly bust out of High Charity. Being the first level with brutes (and only level with both brutes and elites for that matter) is enough to put "Gravemind" in our good graces, but the fun yet challenging assaults on elevated enemy positions, the backdrop of covenant civil war, and plenty of chances to use those sweet, sweet energy swords elevate this level from good to great. It’s a good time in a cool place and sometimes that's all you really need.

Points deducted for those gravlifts though. Oh my god. Do you go up? Down?

We just don't know.

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27.5 / 30

Alex: "Long Night of Solace" (LNOS) is the essential Spartan experience. I hadn't played the Reach campaign since its release and can't believe I had forgotten this mission. It's truly great and deserves to stand amongst our top-ranking missions "Assault on the Control Room", "Uprising", and "The Ark". Astute readers might notice some shared themes in these missions: a clear objective not weighed down by info dumps and inane lore, impossible odds that only a Spartan (or a very special Elite) could conquer, massive scale and beautiful set-pieces interspersed with cleverly designed combat sequences that consistently hit Bungie's "30-seconds of fun" design philosophy. "LNOS" has all of these components AND the series' only good space combat sequence.

Left to their own devices, and receiving little support from Command, Noble Team (well, mostly Kat) quickly devise a plan to take down a Covenant supercarrier by storming a hangar bay (in a sequence that screams "The Silent Cartographer"'s iconic beachhead assault), launching into space in a Sabre fighter jet, defending a space station from waves of Covenant spacecraft, jury rigging a slipspace engine into a makeshift nuke, disabling and hijacking a Covenant corvette and finally setting it on a collision course with Long Night of Solace. Any one of these sections could serve as a single mission in the earlier instalments of the series (and especially in the latter ones...) but instead we get them all in one glorious package – flying through each one at a breakneck pace that doesn't try the player's patience or attention span. Even the Pelican defence section shines. What could have been a standard defend the point against waves of troops is uplifted by virtue of having many weapons at your disposal, a great sense of verticality which allows for varied combat, and a fun mix of enemies to dispose of.

But what elevates this level is that it features a character death that was earned by the narrative and didn't feel cheap because of it. Of course Jorge, who we've come to know as a fiercely compassionate and good Spartan via excellent characterization in earlier missions, sacrifices himself to save his team and Reach itself. The fact that Bungie makes that sacrifice essentially meaningless when hundreds of Covenant cruisers appear shortly afterward isn't narratively speaking a bad thing. This story doesn't have a happy ending. It's a story about survival at all costs. And as Carter points out, "He died thinking he'd just saved the whole planet. We should all be so lucky."

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29.5 / 30

John: Back in the day, before achievements, before online console gaming really took off, we’d get together and play Halo for its co-op campaign. But we were really getting together to Assault a Control Room. There is a SCORPION TANK in this level. The first Scorpion. You are driving it. UNSC Marines are riding it. Four at a time, smiting your foes with sniper rifles, maybe even rocket launchers if you know what you’re about. You will steamroll Covies and launch Grunts many hundreds of feet with this most storied of ordinance, destined to "beat everything." All is well. You are finally where you were born to be. Also, You can race an elite across a rock-bridge to jack his banshee. "Wait, you can pilot those things???" Yes. Yes you can. You can even reload your checkpoint thirty times in the vain hope that you AND your Player 2 might jack BOTH banshees on that lofty bridge of legend. And did I mention? It’s snowing now. Never. Gets. Old.

ALSO: heretofore unprecedented diversity of terrain, weaponry, vehicles, enemy types, massive outdoors environs, immersive battles of epic scope, fantastic score, and stealth sections in quiet rooms that sound like they’re breathing.

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31 / 30

John: I have crowned this the ultimate Halo mission. Having given “Assault on the Control Room” my only perfect 10 heretofore, I had to concede that “The Ark” took it to 11. I know that’s breaking the rules. I don’t care. The scale wasn’t built to accommodate this level of quality. Excellent dessert sniping sequence culminating with Brutes counterattacking you on Choppers. Chopper sequence (they’re yours now). A bunch of sweet Hunter engagements. The Forward Unto Dawn dramatically swoops into atmo to deliver the Scorpion sequence of the series, peppered with salty marine dialogue including the appropriate and immortal “Tank beats everything!” You get to pretend to be buds with Guilty Spark again (very briefly). Finishes with “Silent Cartographer” architectural callbacks and a great Brute Chieftain fight. Hornets are teased. All the while the dessert landscape is sun-soaked and vivid. Your cup runneth over here, people.

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Be sure to check out Part One, with our other level choices from the franchise! Have other choices and thoughts? Leave us a comment below!